Jul 23, 2018
Philosophy for Militants
Translated with a foreword by Bruno Bosteels
1 The Enigmatic Relationship between Philosophy and Politics2 The Figure of the Soldier3 Politics as a Nonexpressive Dialectics
SourcesAppendix: Reflections on the Crisis in QuebecFurther Reading
What better way to preface this charming set of talks on the relationship between politicsand philosophy than by asking to what extent they meet the challenge of providing aphilosophy for militants, as the title of the English translation would indicate?1 In fact,being a clever marketing ploy on the part of the publisher, this title at first did not sit wellwith the author even though he also confessed that he could not come up with a moreappropriate one either. This is because Alain Badious entire oeuvre can be said to lead tothe conclusion that philosophy cannot, or should not, provide political activists andmilitants with an answer to that classical question: What is to be done?
Regardless of whether Lenin had this view in mind when he famously borrowed thephrasing of that question from Nikolai Chernyshevsky, there certainly exists a commonview according to which the task of the philosopher as an intellectual would consist intelling the masses what is to be done. Even Badiou himself, in the preface to his Theory ofthe Subject published forty years ago, may seem to have been seduced by this self-servingimage of the philosopher, insofar as he quotes the people on the barricades during the ParisCommune, in the words of Julien Gracq, as crying out for orders that presumably ought tobe forthcoming from the intellectuals: Where are the orders? Where is the plan?2 ForBadiou, whose thinking at this stage is still sutured onto politics under the influence of astrongly Maoist-inflected Marxism, the most unbearable of nightmares would be to beexposed to such a figure of the intellectual who wanders around like a lost dog from onebarricade to the other, unable to do anything at all, except distributing in disorderlyfashion vouchers for herrings, bullets, and fire to the rebellious masses a nightmarishimage that can be avoided, still according to Badiou, only by inventing a creative newlinkage between philosophers and militants as part of an even more encompassing overhaulof the relation between intellectuals and workers: It is clear to me that to ward off this risksupposes a thorough reshuffling that certainly touches upon the intellectuals but also uponthe workers, for what is at stake is the advent between them of an unheard of type ofvicinity, of a previously unthinkable political topology.3 In fact, part of this new vicinityor topology will involve a growing awareness of the fact that philosophy cannot and shouldnot be programmatic in the classical sense of providing workers and militants with ordersfor what is to be done.
Already in the context of his next major work, Being and Event, Badiou shows much morereluctance before becoming prescriptive in that older sense. In this regard, an interestingbut little-known piece of anecdotal evidence is worth developing in some detail. Indeed,
when, as part of his investigations for Being and Event, Badiou took up the question ofdeciding whether the factory still represented a strategic site for political struggles today,and thus whether the traditional Marxist paradigm for thinking of politics could still beapplicable, his conclusion on the one hand seemed to be resoundingly affirmative, even tothe point of becoming openly prescriptive. Thus, Badiou first attempts to define theessence of Marxism: Reduced to its bare bones, Marxism is jointly the hypothesis of apolitics of non-domination a politics subtracted from the count of the State and thedesignation of the most significant event sites of modernity, those whose singularity ismaximal, which are worker sites. The strength of the classical Marxist paradigm, in otherwords, would be both political and analytical. In fact, the difficulty consists precisely incoming to terms with the fact that the analytical element is conditioned by the retroactiveeffect of actual political interventions without allowing the latter to be derived directly ornecessarily from the former. Badiou also writes:
Now, I maintain that this is what Marx was the first to perceive, at a time whenfactories were in fact seldom counted in the general historical presentation. The vastanalytic constructions of Capital are the retroactive foundation of what for him was apre-predicative evidence: that modern politics could not be formulated, even as ahypothesis, otherwise than by proposing an interpretation-in-subject of theseastounding hysterias of the social in which workers named the hidden void of thecapitalist situation, by naming their own unpresentation.
This insight into the double gesture of Marxism as both analytic construction and politicalintervention, finally, explains why Badiou, even in the context of Being and Event, canappear to remain prescriptive by concluding that the hypothesis of an emancipatory politicstoday must continue to anchor itself in the reference to the workers in the factory as a keysite if not the only one of all possible political events: That is the reason why itremains legitimate to call oneself a Marxist, if one maintains that politics is possible.4
On the other hand, however, Badiou in the end decided not to publish these reflections aspart of Being and Event. Instead, he reserved them exclusively for Le Perroquet, whichwas the newsletter of his political organisation at the time. In part, his reasons for doing sowere simply logistical. Indeed, Badiou had originally foreseen many more meditations thanthe thirty-seven that now make up Being and Event with exemplifying illustrations foreach of the four conditions of philosophy, which are politics, art, science and love. Thisturned out to be physically and conceptually unmanageable. But, all logistics aside, therewas also an important methodological reason for omitting the few pages of The Factory asEvent Site from the vast philosophical system that is Being and Event. That is to say, asBadiou himself explains in an introductory note written for Le Perroquet, by excludingthose pages he is also trying to avoid the traditional role of philosophy as the mother of alldiscourses, capable of setting the agenda for politics. I have withdrawn them, together with
others, writes Badiou about the pages in question, in order to avoid any false perceptionsof the kind: politics is the daughter to philosophy. Because it is the opposite that is true.Philosophy as Hegel but already Plato knew full well stands under the condition ofprocedures of thought that are external to it, among which we find, at the very least,science, art and politics.5
For Badiou, in other words, philosophy cannot and should not play any hegemonic roleover politics, for the simple reason that it is rather philosophy which is always conditioned,whether knowingly or not, by actually existing forms of politics, science and so on. Morebroadly speaking, philosophy is incapable of producing any events or truths of its own, bethey political or otherwise. Instead, philosophy is conditioned by events that are not its ownmaking. This also means, incidentally, that all the talk about the Badiou event inphilosophy, and about the fidelity of certain commentators to this event, is purelynonsensical. Such talk is strictly incompatible with one of the basic principles behindBadious own philosophy, according to which events happen only in other,nonphilosophical domains such as art or politics, the primacy of which constitutes afundamental premise behind the materialist orientation of this philosophy, as opposed to thetypically idealist orientation of philosophies bent upon engendering their truth content outof the activity of the pure concept.
2However, Philosophy for Militants, while clearly running counter to certain basicassumptions behind Badious philosophy, is not a complete misnomer either. To this day,indeed, Badiou has never given up on the idea that philosophy can and must be at theservice, if not of the people, as he would have said during his Maoist years, then at least ofthe few practical truths of which human beings occasionally are capable. A philosophyworthy of the name that which begins with Parmenides is in any case antinomical to theservice of goods, inasmuch as it endeavours to be at the service of truths, because it isalways possible to endeavour to be at the service of something that one does not constituteoneself, Badiou postulates in Being and Event, once more confirming the primacy ofpractical truths over philosophy, but now adding the useful subservience of philosophy tosuch truths: Philosophy is thus at the service of art, of science and of politics. Whether itis also capable of being at the service of love is more doubtful (art, on the other hand, as amixed procedure, supports the truths of love).6
So, unable to produce any truths of its own, philosophy must be able to be at the serviceof politics and other thought-practices, such as art or science, without for this reasonbecoming hegemonic over them. What then is the precise nature of this enigmatic relationbetween politics and philosophy? How exactly can philosophy be at the service of politicswithout telling militants what is to be done?
Roughly speaking, we can distinguish four basic figures in the articulation betweenphilosophy and politics:
1. Especially in the Marxist view, this articulation ideally takes the form of the unity, orfusion, between theory and practice. Philosophy thus would set up a future ideal to whichreality must adjust itself, or which s